National Extension College
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The College teaches around 20,000 learners a year on over 100 home study courses, and provides open-learning resources for organisations and training providers including schools, further education colleges, local authorities and NHS Trusts.
A registered educational charity, the College works in partnership with organisations including The Open University, The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and learndirect.
Subjects covered at GCSE and IGCSE level include the sciences, English literature and language, foundation and higher maths, French and business studies.
"A" levels offered by the college include traditional subjects such as biology, business studies, economics, geography and philosophy, as well as more special interest topics including classical civilisation, critical thinking and environmental studies.
Other qualifications available from the NEC include courses leading to teaching qualifications, childcare diplomas, business and management qualifications and various courses in book-keeping and accounting.
The National Extension College produces its own learning materials, which are delivered both directly to home-based learners and via other organisations and training providers.
When a learner enrols with the National Extension College they receive a full set of course materials and a course handbook. They are also allocated a personal tutor, who is contactable by email and telephone. The personal tutor is responsible for marking the learner's work and providing feedback for the duration of the course. In addition to the personal tutor, each course has a dedicated coordinator whom each learner or their sponsor/employer can also contact for support or advice.
Further support for learners comes from NEC's online student groups, which enable learners to contact each other, provide access to downloadable course materials, allow the uploading of assignments and suggest potentially useful websites.
Foundation and Early Years: 1963-1979
The National Extension College was first announced in the October 1963 edition of Where?, a monthly journal then published by the Advisory Centre for Education. Founder Michael Young introduced the organisation as being the "Invisible College of Cambridge", in reference to the fact that the College would have no teaching premises or full-time teachers of its own and would instead use Cambridge University premises and members of staff from various universities to deliver its courses.
Young envisaged a new type of educational institution, designed to provide education to learners without them needing to attend regular classes or adhere to a particular timetable: "We are thinking rather of the people who cannot turn up regularly for ordinary classes... people who must study in odd moments of the week if they are to study at all."
The NEC initially offered a limited range of courses including "O" level English and mathematics, various vocational courses and a range of programmes in conjunction with the University of London's external degree programme. The College made effective use of local television to increase public awareness of its existence and received more than 3,000 enquiries from potential students in its first eight weeks.
A major increase in the College's size came in 1964, when the NEC took over the failing University Correspondence College, a Cambridge-based organisation dating back to 1888. The takeover granted the NEC an additional 50 staff, an enlarged portfolio of correspondence courses and a larger office from which to operate.
The NEC continued to expand through the 1960s and 1970s. The late 1970s saw a change in emphasis, as the College began offering a range of experimental courses as well as the more traditional "O" and "A" level qualifications. At the same time the organisation was diversifying and changing its profile, moving from being a traditional correspondence college towards becoming a prolific educational publisher and provider of educational services to both the private and public sectors. This broadening of the College's remit necessitated a move to a larger headquarters, so in 1979 the NEC moved to 18 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge, the building that would be its base for the next 22 years.
A Growing Organisation: 1980-1999
In the early 1980s the NEC's focus moved away from enrolling new students and further towards the publishing of educational materials. In response to the extremely high rate of unemployment at the time (three million in 1982), the College concentrated more on producing materials that would enhance learners' employability than developing programmes for traditional academic subjects. By 1986 the emphasis had shifted so far towards producing educational materials for learners studying at other organisations that the then-director, Richard Freeman, wanted the NEC to become a materials provider with no actual students of its own. At the same time, the national "O" level qualifications were being replaced by GCSEs, meaning that if the NEC was to continue to enlist new students on traditional courses a tremendous amount of work would be required to bring its courses up-to-date. However, the departure of Freeman in January 1987 saw the NEC reaffirm its commitment to being a College in its own right and a major investment in new courses brought with it a significant increase in enrollments.
By the time the College celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1988, it had provided courses through distance learning to more than 250,000 students. The organisation marked the occasion with a major conference on open learning, "Open Learning in Transition". The end of the 1980s also saw an increased focus on vocational courses, with new programmes on business administration, accounting and book-keeping being introduced.
The College continued to expand through the 1990s, growing both in terms of staff numbers and enlisted students. By 1999 it was dealing with more than 10,000 new enrolments each year, and was fast outgrowing its Brooklands Avenue base. To cope with its increase in scale, in 2000 the organisation moved to The Michael Young Centre on Purbeck Road, Cambridge.
Recent Years: 2000-Present Day
Operating from its new headquarters, the NEC continued to grow throughout the 2000s. The new "A" level curriculum, introduced in 2000, was another extremely busy time for the organisation, with its editorial team producing more than 16,000 pages of materials to accommodate the change. At this time the College was educating more than 20,000 students each year and providing more than 150 tutor-supported home-learning courses. At the same time it continued to produce materials for other educational institutions, maintaining a portfolio of more than 200 learning resources for colleges, trainers and employers.
The end of the 2000s was a time of major change for the College, the most significant aspect of which was its merger with the Learning and Skills Network in 2010. Both charitable organisations, the LSN and NEC had many shared objectives that suggested the two would make good partners. The merger was short-lived however, as the LSN went into administration in late 2011.
It did not take long for the NEC to find a new partner with which to progress its educational work, and in December 2011 the College joined forces with the Open School Trust, another education charity founded, like the NEC, by Michael Young.
Working with its partners, including The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the NEC is now looking to expand the service it offers to students, further increase the range of courses it provides and continue to work in accordance with the principles on which it was founded.
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- The National Extension College: A Catalyst for Educational Change. Cambridge: National Extension College. 1990. p. 2.
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- The National Extension College: A Catalyst for Educational Change. Cambridge: National Extension College. 1990. p. 20.
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